During the Clinton impeachment year, one got used to viewing television with a trigger finger on the remote, lest the children overhear with too much precision what all the fuss was about. My children are older now, but I still find myself in great sympathy with those home-schooling religious types who simply abjure television and radio altogether; walling off their homes and their lives from the putrescence that swirls outside.
As it is, we man the cultural battlements with an ever-increasing sense of futility. When the reporter following every hiccough of the Scott Peterson trial appears on screen, we may not get to the remote fast enough to prevent the children from hearing that a handsome, normal-seeming man may have murdered and hacked up his wife and baby son. A millionaire who admitted he killed and chopped up his neighbor was recently acquitted. "What does ‘dismembered' mean, Mom?" I don't want them to know. Change the channel, quick.
A few minutes later, they are likely to learn that basketball superstar Kobe Bryant stands accused of rape and that, at best, he was catting around. Is Bryant an exception among professional athletes? Hardly. The list of criminal convictions is long. The list of tasteless and boorish behavior is even longer. A recent test revealed that something like 7 percent of professional baseball players tested positive for steroids. "Say it ain't so, Joe," sounds so quaint now.
Where shall we search for men and women who do not disgrace themselves? To the clergy? The Catholic Church scandal is so broad and deep that it defies belief. So many children, for so many years! And the hierarchy dodged and covered up and lied. Change the channel, quick.
Careful, careful. Do we want the young to know that so many American businessmen cheated, lied and despoiled their companies? Do we want them to see the lavish, Roman-orgyish party Dennis Kozlowski threw for his wife on a Mediterranean island to the tune of $2 million? It would have been disgusting even if it had been honestly paid for. As it is, it appears that Kozlowski stole as much as $600 million from Tyco.
How about politics? Some political scandals are entirely spurious -- merely partisan attempts to gain advantage. But then ... What shall we say to the kids about Arnold Schwarzenegger? Plenty of comely skeletons in that closet. Though at least he had the decency to apologize.
And what of Al Sharpton? The scandal there is that there is no scandal. Here is a man who rose to fame on the strength of a racially motivated smear of a group of perfectly innocent police officers. The good Reverend has never acknowledged wrongdoing nor apologized. As if that were not enough, he was the provocateur who incited a race riot in Harlem that led to the torching of a clothing store and the deaths of seven people. Again, no apology.
And yet he is a respected member of the Democratic Party who has the audacity to run for president. Not only is he not denounced by his fellow candidates, they take turns buttering him up and suggesting coyly that he'd make a heck of a running mate. Change the channel.
Don't let the kids look too closely at journalism. On the air, they'll find a debased search for the lowest common denominator. In print, they'll find plagiarism. Some plagiarists get lucrative book contracts (Jayson Blair). Others, like Stephen Glass, get generous book contracts and movies made about themselves.
Popular music? Whom do you prefer: Eminem or Britney Spears?
And now Michael Jackson does a moonwalk perp walk. There are rumors that he used alcohol and drugs to numb at least one victim. But we don't understand, Jackson insists. There's nothing wrong with having little boys sleep in your bed. It's just an expression of his extraordinarily loving nature. Change the channel.
But we can't change the channel, because this isn't just a television invention. This is our culture. This free-for-all, libertine, conscienceless maypole dance is what we've created from once-strong roots of Puritan rectitude. A nation once lampooned for its innocence now wallows in smut of every kind.
Were it not for the new counterculture -- the millions of families attempting to raise moral and idealistic kids despite the deluge of decadence -- I'd be in doubt about our future.